Doctor Who: Chalk and Talk

This looping story line thing that is evidenced by Listen, is definitely a thing. Jenna Louise Coleman called it the Moffat Loop and she should know.  And over at iO9 there is a succinct summation, putting it all down to The Doctor basically inventing a monster and letting the logic of that play out through loop after closed loop. In that deterministic assessment, it is pretty bleak. Not as bleak as the Fires of Pompeii, but pretty bleak for Clara and Danny Pink.

There are a lot of what ifs in this story. The Doctor’s big hypothesis about his monster, and his one about fear, the what ifs between Danny and Clara and the what ifs asked by Orson. That all have to do about the creation of identity. These are my first thoughts:

  • The child who believes in things under the bed who becomes the soldier he dreams about.
  • The soldier without a weapon who digs holes to save communities.
  • Of course The Doctor would return to his childhood if he was going to use The Moment. If he was killing all the children on Gallifrey he would first destroy his own childhood.
  • Characters are created, but not within a void. They are made of all sorts of stuff.  Just like real humans.
  • We create ourselves.
  • We are never alone. Not Madame De Pompadour. Not us.
  • We are shaped by others, even if, or perhaps especially if, we are not aware of it.
  • The child alone in The Home, Rupert, creates Danny Pink, the soldier teacher. Who can say if he would have become the person he became without Clara and The Doctor’s influence?
  • What moved the chalk?

All of the above is pretty obvious yeah? Because of the loops?

So, if I am to add anything new, (which in the last post I explained was almost always a fool’s errand – but that has never stopped me) I will focus on Clara. For all The Doctor’s big questions it is Clara who has more agency than initially suspected, even in a destiny trap.

Clara has been the antidote to the Doctor’s infected timeline, a kind of girlfriend in various episodes (The Crimson Horror), his student in some places (as in The Rings of Akhaten), and his teacher in Into the Dalek. Clara showed him which Tardis to steal, and became his guide and conscience when facing the annihilation of Gallifrey in the barn with The Moment, and for a brief exchange, his daughter in Listen.

About Listen.

If the Tardis shows Clara Danny Pink’s time line because it is linked to her own, then, with the Tardis showing Clara The Doctor’s time line, it similarly indicates a link to her own time line. With the Tardis making the physical connection, Clara finds the words to make it a fact. In that moment, by his bed, she is more than a healer or companion to the child who will eventually be The Doctor, but a mother.

As his parent, Clara becomes the agency for his creation, or rather the creation of his persona as The Doctor. And it’s not all about quoting his own words and thus allowing him to create himself. No. Because Clara doesn’t just  repeat his words, she adds her own. She, in fact, implants the notion of a companion in this scared little boy’s head. She invents her own role, because of the role she is in.

That last bit bears repeating because it’s kind of lost in the magic of that particular aha moment. In speaking to the boy in the barn, she invents the concept of companion as familiar to The Doctor. That’s a bit of a big deal!

However Clara keeps doing stuff like this, because one, she keeps getting the opportunity to, and two, she has the right words at the right time. Not Rose, Donna, Martha, not even Amy, had the right words with the right timing. This is her super power, or defining trait.

Clara’s use of language is able to:

- Transform the monsters under the bed of nightmares into companions.

- She is his conscience in The Name of The Doctor, giving him pause to stop before using The Moment.

- Convince The Doctor of a Dalek’s humanity as the Oswald version of herself in Asylum of the Daleks.

- Convince The Doctor of a Dalek’s ability to change, in Into the Dalek.

- Find the one perfect word (Pond) to inspire The Doctor once more when the Nanny version of her is quizzed by Madam Vastra.

- Hold herself in check to reason with robots intent on using her for parts in Deep Breath.

- She tells The Doctor to do something, and he does it, thus discovering her authority as an adult and with The Doctor, in Listen.

- She helps children become, by speaking and also listening, with empathy, wit and understanding, in Rings of Akhaten, The Snowmen, Nightmare in Silver and Listen etc.

In this way we can see Clara is a lot of chalk and talk as a teacher and as a companion. Somehow she manages to hit on the right words, find the right questions, make The Doctor shut up at the right moments, to inspire, calm, soothe, save and direct. She’s not an epic action hero like River, she’s not loud to hide her self-consciousness like Donna, she is not outspoken like Martha, or self-assured like Amy, she is her own self. And she knows it, in her confession to Danny at the restaurant, she reveals her power is also her flaw and that is because of her experiences and perspective as a time traveller.

There is a kind of irony then in her communication with Danny as it is the only time she doesn’t have the words. In this she is the opposite of Emma Grayling in Hide, who was all about detecting and conveying emotional energy: People like me… sometimes, we get our signals mixed up. We think people are feeling the way we want them to feel… you know, when they are special to us. Clara can read the signals, but this is the only time the signals she reads trips up her language:

Failure to Communicate

Failure to Communicate

In fact, Listen is a reflection of the episode Hide. There are other episode connections, too, but Hide is important. Right down to: running towards a difficult to detect suspected presence in the midst of fear; a supernatural atmosphere and travelling through time to find an answer linked to experimental time travel that results in awkward family encounters. And instead of The Doctor setting out to find out more about Clara as in Hide, Clara – and everyone else – finds out more about The Doctor! Furthermore, if these stories are opposite, then the ‘monster’ in Listen is real, because the ‘monster’ and ‘ghost’ of Hide were not monsters and ghosts at all.

Basically, these perfect hiding beings, are real, like the Vashta Nerada. Just because Clara becomes the nightmare under the bed, it doesn’t mean she is alone. Generally speaking too, nursery rhymes are only ever written about real stuff.

The Real Monster

The Real Monster

As for Clara, Hide was a nice tense episode and we can see her growth from then until Listen. She is more confident, more able to take charge and find solutions, but still able to ask the right questions and still able to shush The Doctor for his absence of sensitivity. And it is good too to see what The Doctor’s character retains. Still bossy, still immune to the sensitivities of others (like psychics or kids), and still willing to risk life and limb by jumping into the unknown.

Hide and Listen then, together complete a neat set of correspondences and juxtapositions that are either entirely deliberate or completely random, but definitely inspired.

If Clara demonstrates the power of speech or the right words, then she is also voicing, as subtext, the importance of stories, and of story tellers, and so to, the importance of writers. Without a writer, Clara is without form and function. She is powerless without the words written for her.

All of the above is why I don’t get those people who can’t find anything at all redeeming in the writing or story lines of Steven Moffat or the other writers of his series. They forget that stories involving events and people are braided, and intertwine. This is especially important because with stories involving time travel these braided arcs can twine backwards, forwards and sideways. Just because they take paying attention to, and are actively disorienting, doesn’t mean they are not internally and emotionally consistent as stories.

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Stories: bigger on the inside

Analyse this? 

I came across a fairly thorough psychological interpretation of Harry Potter via FB recently. The page linking to it had a lot of comments – people were either upset as it had ‘ruined’ the books or they were angry that someone had ‘bothered’.  Whatever the complaint, there was so much entitlement, or ownership. I understand people invest in stories, so don’t want their emotional connections sullied, or they don’t want their ego bruised if their own view of a story is somehow challenged.

Yet.

I mounted a defence as best I could along multiple lines: if another’s person’s critique of a thing ruins it, the thing and you were not perhaps as tight as you thought. Or your understanding of the text is not as robust as you reckon, or basically, the book or song or painting is not as good as you imagined. Additionally, we bother to analyse stuff because we humans analyse stuff all day every day. We wonders, for instance, why siblings ‘borrowed’ my transistor radio (sigh) as a kid, and what some people see in their partners, or find accountancy entertaining or why there are Twihards.

We speculate about the motivations of people – real or imagined. It’s ok if you don’t want to speculate about characters, but in the end, we’re all stories, and therefore we are characters we make up in our heads and present to the world.

Furthermore, many of the comments confused the meaning of canon and criticism. To be clear. What I do here is mostly examine canon (if there is one), by adapting techniques appropriate to literary and televisual criticism. This is secondary to canon, in fact it can’t exist without the primary substance called canon. Canon is considered to be the product of an effort to create something original and have it accepted as authentic. Of course, I could apply criticism to fan fic – which is not canon – but I don’t think anyone wants that.

But all the above is a kind of agreed nonsense and others explain it better than me, but suffice it to say Shakespeare wasn’t all het up about originality. As that link goes on to explain the major concern for literate poet types who cared about this stuff  700 years ago was the: one distinction, between the matiere, which was the source material, and the san, which was their treatment of it.

So I suppose as a critic I am messing about with Who matiere, and in this process creating san, but of a different order. Not so much retelling the story, but explaining it, because I think our ability to ‘read’ symbols, understand analogies and appreciate the depth of our cultural heritage and how it’s inflected by certain writers is not as widespread or common as it once was. It is, in fact, a speciality.

And, that is why there are Harry Potter literalists who decry reading a text any other way than their own. They don’t get metaphor. They only accept stories as ‘made up’ because they can’t see how it engages with a wider culture or can lead us into understanding more than just the actions of a boy wizard. Or an alien.

You Who?

Thus, I will persist with the analysing about Doctor Who.  I don’t do it to take something from you that is yours. Or to diminish something that people love. It doesn’t mean I can’t write about other programs or books or films and sometimes I do, but Who lends itself to analysis because it’s long running, its characters are myriad and ever transforming, while the plots deal with any or even all time periods and difficulties. Beyond that I keep going back to it. Other things fade away, Who hasn’t. In short, unlike much of popular culture, it is not just glossy packaging: it does what it says on the box.

No really, why Who?

I could write about Arrow and the difficulties in living a double life, but that’s covered with companions in Who. For instance Clara lives an everyday school teacher non-Doctor life in contrast to her secret-ish time travelling. Sometimes this is difficult and other times this is easy. It was the same with the Ponds, who battled the pull of  a ‘normal’ work-and-friends kind of life against the lure of adventure and it was the same with Rose and Donna, who wanted to be with The Doctor, but also had family considerations. In addition, The Doctor is living multiple lives. Mostly he ‘pretends’ to be human, he refuses to discuss much of his past unless absolutely forced to, and he has duties and obligations and rules and often he hides these or runs away from them, like our Arrow friend, in the face of great loss and hardship. The Doctor does what he does because he has done it for so long, but it was, as far as we know, a choice first.

I could also write about sexual tension between the Hero and the Bright Young Assistant in Arrow but again, Doctor Who has it in spades. This program constantly negotiates and redefines roles and the relationships between Hero and Companion whether it is love interest Rose, long-lost love Sarah Jane, pining-rebound-non-Rose Martha, friend Donna or wannabe/not wannabe Clara – all within the confines of a ‘family friendly’ program.

Of course I could write about the actors, and looky what we have here with Arrow. Laurel Lance’s ‘Mom’ – the mad woman who believes her daughter is alive, and is right, but doesn’t know it. Not to mention Malcolm Merlyn (Malcolm – bad in the Latin) the anti-Robin Hood.

Bad in the Latin!

Bad in the Latin! Awesome in Everything!

Or I could delve into the Star Trek films and explore how reboots reshape and retell stories, but again, Doctor Who is all over it. In 2005 the TV program was rebooted, and, more importantly, the hero reboots himself every few years anyway and has done for bloomin’ decades. This program, basically, invented the reboot. And not only that, as a time traveller, he could and has in fact, retconned his entire story line and defeated others who have tried.

I could also delve into Star Trek to discuss spin offs and their relationship to the core stories. Again, I can do it with Doctor Who, what with the Sarah Jane shows, the K9 one, and Torchwood, not to mention the films, audio plays, and novels.

I could spend more time writing about the Marvel universe than I have, but each of our Avenging heroes manages to represent aspects of The Doctor, as I previously mentioned. Although Guardians of the Galaxy is a pretty damn funny and entertaining reboot-thing of Firefly + Star Wars and deserves more attention and many more accolades.

More words could be directed towards everything Joss Whedon-y, but having read a lot of stuff over at Tea at the Ford, they’ve had it covered for a long time, although they do cover everything else is well, if only sporadically. But go read.

In time, focus will turn again to Tolkien with the third instalment of The Hobbit, which will bring its own themes to examine. Here be dragons.

Generally Genre

I could write about genre regarding any number of books or films, but Doctor Who makes use of them all. Want horror, with ghosts or zombies? Yep The Doctor has ‘em. Want ‘hard’ SF? Got that too, want space operas, family dramas, dinosaurs, westerns, or serious psychological stories of ‘Othering’, pirates, or modern mystery adventures or alternate universes, battles with Romans, Sherlock-like things, or a crap load of robots, or Victorian steam punk lizards plus comedy? All covered. Want, say, examples of feminist heroines from the 1970s, or explorations of the impact of colonialism, examinations of class, or the impact of war, unregulated healthcare provision or scientific experimentation, unchecked militarism or rampant industrialisation, examinations of organised religion, developing celebrations of diversity, or the dangers of imposed technology? Check, check, check etc.

Rules and Boundaries

Doctor Who, like Arrow or I don’t know, Neighbours, has rules to follow as a program, but unlike them, it has less boundaries. If the Neighbours cast suddenly battle an alien invasion it’s no longer the soap opera it set out to be. If the hero of Arrow suddenly pursues a career in interpretative dance in Canada, it wouldn’t be Arrow. Yet Doctor Who can be an urban family drama (eg any ep featuring the Tylers) or it can be a full on cartoony super-villian program (any ep with The Master) or end up in a Toronto jazz ballet class and still remain itself.  It’s not that Neighbours or Arrow are worse programs, they’re just constrained by genre, as they should be.

For the record, Arrow is pretty good, and I’m fairly certain being Australian means having at least watched some episodes of Neighbours, even if not for a decade.

Anyway, if you find, after all of this, that Doctor Who is the program for you, it is perhaps because, just like the box The Doctor travels in, its stories are always bigger on the inside.

 

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Heroic Codes in Doctor Who

Cooking up a story

Writers are like chefs. They have ingredients: pop culture tropes, personal influences, knowledge of their audience, big themes and little obsessions. They also have recipe rules they can choose to follow or ignore when they cook up a story. They chuck everything into a mixture, have it whiz in their brains for a bit and in the end, whatever comes out ideally tastes of the familiar, yet is new.

Part of the ingredient list for writers is cultural inheritance. A store of legends, myths, characters, themes, expectations and sayings, (like ‘once upon a time’). These change from culture to culture, but if there is such a thing as ‘the West’ or Western culture, surely it could be defined by the breadth of this cultural largesse. Part of its genius is that it incorporates aspects of many cultures (from Sumerian, Gaelic to Ancient Greek) and appropriates many stories and characters (from Cinderella – who is from China – to the miracle birth of the baby Horus).

It’s good to be reminded that just because something feels familiar, or even tired, there are reasons it’s lasted over generations.

So when someone reinterprets Robin Hood I have expectations of a place called Sherwood, of Merry Men, of Maid Marian and how they battle the Big Bad Sheriff of Nottingham because I am familiar, like many of us are, with our shared cultural heritage. This story could happen on a far-flung space station, on a tropical island, or in 1960s New York with a gang of dancing kids battling corrupt dancing judges – but we would still recognise it because of how the characters are drawn, and how the story develops. It is a part of our cultural memory.

Yet, there are also opportunities for depth. Not just to present the old in a new setting, but to explore what it means when we make legends, what it indicates about us that we tell new stories by returning to previous stories.

The Doctor and Flashheart of Sherwood

For all the Lord Flashheart fake laughter, which in itself is significant, this is what Robot of Sherwood is doing. Once more The Doctor is told how people see him. It is not as a good man, it is more than that, as Robin explains, as The Doctor is a hero of the same standing as Robin himself, and as Marian notes, a clever one at that.

This is clever of Mark Gatiss too. He uses his character – a version of Legendary Hero – to affirm the legitimacy of an entirely made up fictional character – The Doctor – as Hero. It’s the writer claiming what he is creating as myth is just as credible and valuable as any other myth.

As the viewer we assent to this because we trust Robin Hood because he is a Hero. Outside of the story, we know there are 50 years of TV episodes, novels, films, audio plays, fan fiction and criticism to back this claim up. Of course The Doctor is a mythic hero. Of course this means he shares a lot in common with Robin Hood, or any one of a number of such beings that are driven to do more and sacrifice more than most mere mortals can achieve.

Heroic Much?

Of course (again) such a TV show must make the Hero more empathetic. In many myths, Heroes don’t often have the luxury of ‘good’ that the rest of us may bask in when we rescue a possum from a car park (for a real life instance). That’s because heroes see the big picture, they’re out before the bulldozers and petitioning governments to stop trees being torn down for those very same car parks in the first place. They are too busy, in short, to sit back and ponder stuff like character development.

To put it another way, Heroes are often difficult to personalise in stories, precisely because their actions are epic, and because every day details are either absent, unflattering or insignificant – they get worn away over the millennia in the retelling, and only the significant stuff remains. This is why fairy tales and folk tales seem generic.

Even if they were once ‘real’ people, Heroes transcend history, even their own. So Robin Hood is a legend, the conflation of folk hero saviour and a bunch of historical figures whose values and deeds are reflective of the desires and needs of the times he represents. That he remains pertinent today says something about both the malleability of stories and the consistency of our requirements in Heroes.

What The Doctor has in all of this, is the benefit of epic Herculean tasks combined with the minutiae of individuality. We get to see details about The Doctor that we don’t know or have forgotten about most other Heroes. This is one benefit of writing for television, but it is also the result of how we like our stories told now and how they are preserved. This is precisely why Robin Hood often grated in this episode – because he was deliberately living like a Heroic figure – all bombast. Yet it was when he was real – when talking about Marian or demanding the truth from Clara – that he became a character we could find empathy for.

This is also true of The Doctor, we feel for him as events unfold, and cheer him on too. This is why the companion is important. Since he is Hero and we are not, we need someone more like us to be a lens through which we can understand and question him. In this way, if The Doctor is a hero to Clara, then he is Hero to us and a more accessible and enticing one than many other Heroes.

Damselling and Courtly Love

If Greek Heroes followed the Homeric Warrior Code, followed even now by many of our pop culture Heroes (just think Batman or even Superman), it is also true the nature of the Heroic has been influenced by other ideals. The notion of the quest has been influenced by the chivalric code, and ideals about knighthood embedded additional features, such as the notion of Courtly Love.

Robin Hood is an interesting example. He is a nobleman, (like all good knights), but is an outlaw. Whether he is actually part of the chivalric period matters less than how he clearly demonstrates the Hero’s Quest is no bar to love, and can even inspire great deeds, as Courtly Love requires, even or especially if, the beloved is separated from the Hero – as with Robin and Marian.

Writers like Gatiss know all of this, which is why Clara is no Damsel in Distress. Her manipulation of the Sheriff is inspired, and her frustration with The Doctor and Robin Hood compelling. I do wish Marian had more to do, but at least she recognised a hero when she saw one.

It was also why this  episode offers an updated Heroic Code, which highlights intellect, technology and cunning over Homeric or even Knightly Warrior values – again made clear in Into the Dalek. Doctor Who’s message is that anyone can be Heroic without weapons and without a Damsel; however, with his reason, grumpiness, and anger this Doctor is reminded there are other motivations in life, like love, even amid the life of quests he chose for himself.

Heroic Fallibility 

Robin demonstrates The Doctor can be brilliant and also wrong. It happens a bit, where the plot is upended and goes in a direction you don’t suspect because The Doctor jumps to conclusions or posits a hypothesis that is demonstrated to be incorrect.

In Robot of Sherwood, sometimes legends prove to be real, although they may be tilting at robotic alien windmills.  Yet, for all his outer confidence, conviction, power and knowledge The Doctor is wrong about Robin, but as Clara notes, also blind to how he is perceived.

All this wrongness is just the overt stuff, and hides how The Doctor every so often subverts his unconscious desires. In the episode The Doctor’s Daughter, we have the Tardis physically taking him somewhere where he can make someone like himself. This happens and he is angry because Jenny is both like him and not like him enough. In the end The Doctor thinks he’s lost her,  because he falsely believes he was too early or too late.

No. He was on time, he just didn’t wait. In this instance, he forgets the Tardis is a part of himself and so, he is where he needs to be at exactly the right time. In this way, The Doctor’s flaw, like so many Heroes, is hubris: excessive pride or a kind of blindness to thinking beyond his own. He questioned the Tardis’  timing and therefore he misses out. In Ancient Greek myth hubris is always punished by Nemesis – in this case ‘losing’ Jenny. But in general The Doctor’s BIG nemesis, or opposite or mirror are the Daleks.

Of course, The Doctor is generally a little more aware than the average Hero – mainly due to the presence of his companions. He even realises how his hubris and defiance lead to the creation of the Daleks as his nemesis. His real punishment, then, is his self-imposed/sometimes not-self imposed exile and loss of home. He is a Hero because he realises he isn’t, punishes himself for failing when he tries and fails and is at his most Heroic when he forgets all of it.

Thus, we can see your most up to the minute writers constantly messing about with some of the most ancient theories – the building blocks even – of Western story telling regarding the formation of character and how heroes are defined.

Pompeii vs Sherwood

Face/Off

Face/Off

What some viewers expected was something about how The Doctor’s intervention creates the event, which therefore creates the legend of Robin Hood, as in Fires of Pompeii, where The Doctor and Donna are forced into a situation where they explode the volcano. This is either unintended irony or entirely deliberate given how Peter Capaldi plays the opposite of what he was with Caecilius. This link to Pompeii is further signalled by the alien beings building all too familiar circuits when and where they shouldn’t be.

However, Robot of Sherwood is opposite to this kind of story logic. In this episode all the myth making has been done and we and The Doctor learn Robin Hood the myth is a creation of himself. Furthermore, The Doctor learns is that he is not alone in striving to be better than he may be in reality and that even if he doesn’t think he is good, he is someone’s Hero.

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Doctor Who & Hamlet: Are we who we say we are?

If you’ve yet to watch the 2014 Doctor Who episodes, then you probably should. Or you can enjoy this song Who Are You by The Who, which posits important questions thematically linked to Doctor Who and this post. Like: Well, who are you? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?). I really wanna know (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?). Tell me, who are you? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?).

Please note, the post has nothing to do with a band name, nor are The Who cited because they are British, and finally this has nothing to do with CSI theme songs.

Before getting into discussion, this week we learned Robot of Sherwood has been edited for sensitivity over recent instances of beheadings. This is not a thing I will address in this post, but what we use art to react to in the world and what we change in our work because of it are big questions for creative types.

Any who.

Television, as well as being frivolous fun and a drug for the masses, sometimes gets to ask big questions. The Doctor is Hamlet, when he wants to be, seeing dead people (Amy), conversing with ghosts (In Hide, and with River and the Cybermen), sword fighting (Cybermen with umbrellas), upset about sending people crazy (Martha a bit) and upset at not being able to trust his feelings (with Rose especially) and hanging around with his friends (the Paternoster Gang) because he is gloomy about the death of members of his family (the Ponds/Gallifrey) and the burden of responsibility (Gallifrey/Earth).

Mostly though, The Doctor is Hamlet because he questions things, like the meaning of existence and who he is, and where he belongs, and whether he should do the things he feels he must do, damn the consequences. He spends a lot of time pondering these things and pretending to be ‘crazy’ to avoid confronting his real issues:

Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t. Or as Florence the internal shape changing alien notices in Smith and Jones: You’re quite the funny man. And yet, I think, laughing on purpose at the darkness. 

Basically, as Matt Smith’s final episode revealed, the title of the program declares the biggest question – with the name of the main character also being part of an interrogative. A question about identity. Is the Doctor a lonely prince doomed to exile? Or he is like a Renaissance Scholar bounded by responsibilities that make the universe seem tiny enough to fit into a walnut? Will he pursue his revenge or seek another way?

So, like Hamlet, in New Who many characters spend a lot of time pretending, or hiding, or acting, being mistaken or becoming, not to mention lying. On one level this is character growth that drives plots and reflects deliberate (or near as deliberate as can be) planning on behalf of the writers. However, there are other things going on.

I mean as The Doctor says about life and space: Doubt thou the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move; Doubt truth to be a liar, Doubt that the Dream Lord is telling the truth.

Hamlet and Who - see it's not just me.

Hamlet and Who – see it’s not just me!

So far, there was a Dalek who was also Oswald. Clara who became a bunch of different people, including Oswald. There were the Gangers – the almost people who became people after a war with, um, people. Part human Daleks. The Krillitanes who took the physiology of others to improve themselves. There are shape shifting aliens pretending to be horses and Queen Elizabeth. There is the sibling without a memory who thought he was an Android, only to discover he was human, and then forgot. Again. There are the robots across the universe rebuilding themselves out of humans and whatever else they can find, and a Robot of Sherwood (love a good pun).  Endless Cybermen with their upgrades. And let’s not forget Rusty the Dalek, turned against his own kind by his remembered epiphany. Now, The Doctor, who is told he is a Good Dalek, questions what sort of person he is, or tries to be.

Thus, a lot like Hamlet:

  • Who asks us to consider who we are, who we think we are and how others see us – eg, whether we are good, heroic or dangerous, whether we are soldiers or civilians, princes or mad men and what we capable of.
  • There is always times for jokes.
  • Who asks us to examine our prejudices, just as The Doctor is often confronted about his own, for instance, in the episode called The Dalek and by Clara again in Into the Dalek – honestly how much does he learn and retain?
  • Who invites us to see how far identity can be constructed. Like cells replaced in bodies, we remake ourselves or are remade by events. In fact, the story is about a man who chose his own name – can’t get any more constructed than that.
  • Who asks us to see this construction of identity as construction, as building in progress, but actually not quite ever ending.
  • Who asks us to realise these identities – constructed or organic – are always in flux. Not just with The Doctor’s regenerations, but everyone. Clara in her incarnations, River who was Melody, who was Mels, Amy who is also Amelia, Rory as nurse and Roman, Rose – shop girl/super hero, Martha, lovelorn Doctor/Unit Scientist/freedom fighter, Donna to DoctorDonna to Donna again. Etcetera ad infinitum.
  • Who also tells us flux doesn’t negate the proposition of an essential you. Even after so much change, in School Reunion Sarah Jane Smith and The Doctor can start from where they left off.

Identity, like life, is about change and coping with it. I know there are worse ways to absorb important lessons about such stuff than by watching a television program. Beats the hell out of watching your own family get de-materialised by aliens, or, like Hamlet, watch your mother be poisoned by your uncle who happened to murder your father.

Lest you think I am not seriously considering the writing involved, I believe writers should examine how language is deployed in the exploration of the continuing and fluid construction of identity. Steven Moffat and other episode writers often do this overtly, thus making it clear we don’t have to rely on Shakespearean iambic pentameters or even subtext, to convey important stuff.

In this way, it’s convenient and telling so many Who characters say exactly what language does. Go writers for not being afraid to discuss words!

Take for example River Song’s speech from A Good Man Goes to War:

Doctor: the word for healer and wise man, throughout the universe. We get that word from you, y’know. But if you carry on the way you are, what might that word come to mean? To the people of the Gamma Forests, the word doctor means mighty warrior.

In the same episode: Amy tells us directly names are important. Since Melody Williams is a geography teacher, while Melody Pond is a superhero.

And while we’re here, let’s sit beside the river and think about names and language. We know, not just from Amy, as we were told as early as The Shakespeare Code, and in Girl in the Fireplace – that names have magic and power and identity attached to them whether they are given or chosen. Rivers are mostly linear phenomena, as are songs – with beginnings, middles and ends. On the other hand, Professor River Song’s existence is the ultimate contrast to her name.

To us and to The Doctor River lives her life backwards, and in a circular fashion. She is the ourobourous. Her name, a translation of the language of the Gamma people, signifies the beginnings of her life in the forests, stands for the record of her adventures, and ends in the Forest of the Dead (The Library), where her entire history is uploaded, just as her diary – paper made out of trees – is catalogued. This River, who cycles through her birth, life, death, regeneration, new life, death, and post death existence, is full of momentum, but unlike rivers and songs and the rest of us, is never quite headed to one final end.

River, the human with multiple names, the warrior-archaeologist-assassin, who pretends to be Cleopatra, and who is Time Lord-like, who swims along a time stream flowing in reverse to The Doctor’s, is the epitome of paradox. Therefore, given her unique perspective rivalled only by The Doctor’s own, she gets to tell it how it is.

Like Father, like Daughter, Rory, the nurse who became a plastic Roman, existed for 2000 years and grew up with his child, also tells The Doctor who he is. In an episode where alien fish disguise themselves as humans, only to be suspected as vampires, Rory identifies attributes of The Doctor. It’s one of my favourite bits of Angry Rory:

You know what it’s dangerous about you? It’s not that you make people take risks, it’s that you make them want to impress you. You make it so they don’t want to let you down. You have no idea how dangerous you make people to themselves when you’re around.

  • So Who, through Rory’s speech, tells us that Who is about learning to see through disguises, to see through faces that change, and mirages and lies, to how people really are. This is what Clara must relearn with the new Doctor.

I only disagree with Rory in that I think The Doctor does know how dangerous he is to his friends. He just needs reminding. He too, is a paradox because companions make him better, and through him his companions become more than they perhaps ever would have been, but there are risks. But we all know, The Doctor is worth the monsters.

Then there are characters invited to say who they think people are. So The Doctor asks Clara whether he is a good man.

et, even guest characters get to have a go:

Rita: Why is it up to you to save us? That’s quite a God Complex you have there.

Takes a doctor to know a Doctor right? I mean, shouldn’t all doctors believe they can save us? Even characters without their own dialogue get to comment on who The Doctor is, as again, with The God Complex:

An ancient creature, drenched in the blood of the innocent, drifting in space through an endless shifting maze. For such a creature, death would be a gift.

Yeah, right in the feels. What we see in others is what we fail to identify in ourselves.

Speaking of the shifting maze though, the Tardis too tells us about function and name, especially in the Doctor’s Wife, where their non-linear conversation turns on what The Doctor calls his Tardis, which indeed, is another name for what this living, evolving, machine, is: a reflection of who he is which in turn explains everything the program is, and what the writing attempts to do.

In the end, I suppose this post, this program are like life, which had been the tomb of his virtue and of his honour, is but a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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Doctor Who: Inner Spaces

If you haven’t seen Into the Dalek, then, to misquote the Spice Girls, stop right now, thank you very much. This blog post is about what it means to have a human touch.

Some good hard SF concepts and special effects in Into The Dalek, in addition to some nice insights into Clara’s world and how it works with The Doctor plus the Doctor and Clara continue their conversation about who The Doctor is, and how Clara sees herself…as predicted.  However, all that is not what I’m going to write about.

I was going to say it started In Let’s Kill Hitler with the  Teselecta – miniaturised people inside a shape shifting robot  – and then I was going to say it started with The Girl in the Fireplace with the disguised clockwork robots at Versailles, or Silence in the Library with Donna trapped inside a computer with fake kids, but I’m wrong. Doctor Who has always explored what it means to be who we are – even from the first episode.

Here's looking inside you, kid.

Here’s looking inside you, kid.

More recently though, the theme Steven Moffat  has overtly pursued with Clara has been interiors, inner worlds and insides. This is both literal and metaphorical. She is the Impossible Girl who jumped inside The Doctor’s timeline; who was put inside a Dalek, and locked deep inside a prison planet; who wandered around the innermost bits of the TARDIS, not once, but twice; and most recently was miniaturised and injected into a Dalek. Again, Clara was present when the Doctor battled the Cyber Controller inside his own mind.

As you do.

Metaphorically speaking, one can posit Clara’s goodness, ‘caring’ and common sense insights are the antibodies to The Doctor’s mostly repressed hate. We’ve been exposed to it before with the Dream Lord, which was an exterior representation of an interior infection with psychological symptoms. But Rusty the Good Dalek sees it too from his unique perspective.

It does kinda go back to my previous thoughts on identity and what people are for and mean to each other.

But there are other instances of the importance of the interior:

  • The robots value us for utilitarian purposes, literally for what is inside us – optic nerves and spleens etc. The robots too, hide in plain sight, a space ship inside a restaurant, which is really a trap + larder. There is thus, not one inside, but layers.
  • The robots in the larder, Rusty, even the Doctor in the cupboard – present secrets and memories we lock away inside us. The same may go for this new teacher Danny Pink – he, like The Doctor has (mostly) concealed trauma.
  • Madame Vastra directly, but The Doctor too, are meditations on public and private faces and who we let see us as we really are.

All these things are well and good, and do not often bog down the plot or story – action does happen, even while The Doctor and everyone else argue over what it means to be Dalek. But I do want at some point, some answers or indications about what it may mean.

Perhaps memories are significant. In the first episode The Doctor believes his face is a reminder, and Clara is remembering Matt Smith’s Doctor so much that she can’t see Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. In the very next episode Clara literally fires off Dalek (awesome old-fashioned plastic pipe prop) neurones to reboot Rusty’s memory, even as The Doctor uses his own memories to enable Rusty to see with a new perspective.

Meanwhile, the new story arc continues.

Is this new Missy character the woman who gave Clara The Doctor’s number? Is Missy dead? Or does she somehow relate to Clara’s statement that ‘we are all dead’ to The Doctor? Is Missy recruiting an army of those who died for, or somehow at the behest of, The Doctor, (because that would be a big army)?

Missy feels completely new, but also familiar – like a River Song/Madame Kovarian hybrid – flirty, over-informed, dangerous and trapped somewhere with a plan. Is this deliberate writing, or an unconscious Moffat trope or am I reading too much into a couple of scenes?

In a return to earlier comments, this Heaven/Paradise, feels like another interior wherein yet another character – Missy – dwells, a bit like The Library or Appalappachia. It feels disturbing because it seems ideal.

I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

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A Deeper Breath – more on Doctor Who

The first viewing is raw, impressions are quick, and it’s about trying to get the vibe of it, The Castle style. Later, on reflection, and upon a brief survey of what other people think (everything from deep love to resentment at this new guy and the title sequence), it’s time for further analysis of Deep Breath.

Writers are taught, or learn, to show, don’t tell. On and on. And in Deep Breath, I felt there was much telling. There were telling conversations, grand soliloquies and heart breaking dialogue. The action serves to deliver a mystery to solve (as each must), but also reflects aspects of these conversations (as I discussed in the previous post regarding identity and change). But still, there was an awful lot of telling scattered throughout the robots, the dinosaur and restaurant that was a space ship (sadly not like the Bistromath).

Perhaps so much talking made it feel like melodrama. But in its defence, within the story regeneration is a big deal, and from outside of the plot, changing the main character of a very successful long running TV show is also a big deal. Over-emotional excitement, fear, and a bit of cheesy stuff seems par for the course, compared with similar episodes.

However, there was more talking about who and what the Doctor should be in this episode than in previous regeneration episodes. David Tennant’s doctor wondered who he was, briefly, in The Christmas Invasion, and then revealed who he was through his interactions with the aliens, the Prime Minister, and the Doubting Rose. It was in this sense, of more showing and less telling that he discovered he could talk a lot, find meaning in the Lion King, fight with a sword and not give second chances, all in his jim jams. All his actions and then his choice of outfit completed him…and that’s it – he won Rose’s approval and ours.

In the 11th Hour, Matt Smith’s Doctor had little time for introspection, except to briefly wonder if he was a girl. His Doctor was shaped around what Amelia had to feed him and the mystery she presented. Later, he is shaped by Amy, the girl who lies about her identity and pretends to be other people for entertainment, and all this happens before he realises what he looks like. In addition, he takes the clothes of other people. More than previous Doctor’s he is influenced by others – especially Amelia/Amy. In her presence, he is an awkward son-in-law with the look of a rakish nephew, big brother, friend, replacement family, guardian, and sometimes something-almost more-ish if it wasn’t for Rory. With Amy and Rory gone it was their loss that then shaped him; his grief and latent anger driving him headlong into Clara and the new family that is the Paternoster Gang.

Which brings me to Clara.

With Clara I’m not sure the viewers are completely seeing The Doctor from her point of view – as we did with Rose. Which is funny if you think about the word – Clara – Clarity – seeing clearly. I think their relationship is, if anything, both more straightforward and more hidden than The Doctor’s with Amy or Rose or Martha. Straightforward because the episode in a very didactic manner tells (again not showed) us it is not romantic, and hidden because Clara feels like she is still working out who she is. Or maybe we are working out which Clara she could be. This also means there is a certain distance or reserve. Are we really on her side, if she is doubtful of The Doctor again? She may not really see The Doctor, but are we or The Doctor really seeing her clearly?

Furthermore, Clara doesn’t show The Doctor who he is, like Amelia does, but tells him directly. Maybe this is somehow meant to be a comment on her role as a teacher? But the best teachers, in my mind, get students to find the answers. Anyway, in the ship Clara says out loud he is there to rescue her, and later, contradicts his own emerging knowledge of himself – see below:

 

No hugging - I'm Scottish.

No hugging – I’m Scottish.

Again, the writing  is reflexive of the medium. Thus, as for being someone with a unique perspective on regenerations, Clara is more like the viewer than ever before. She has knowledge of his past selves, been inside his head, but as with many viewers, remains suspicious and doubtful of the new Doctor’s self. Like viewers, she is both prepared to abandon him, but willing to be convinced too. The Doctor needing Clara is thus, directly analogous to a program needing viewers, and in fact for writers and their need for readers. Yet, it also says something about the need for acceptance in relationships of all kinds.

The Clara/Doctor relationship works both ways. The loss of the Ponds means The Doctor – for all that he let Clara in (literally inside his timeline) – pushes Clara away (eg excluding her with talks with the Tasha Lem of the Papal Mainframe). However, The Doctor is always the one running back to Clara – every Wednesday off they go.  He is both distant and protective of her and I think this will change. Perhaps Clara will become distant, or, perhaps she will become more, not exactly maternal, but represent his softer side while I hope she learns to toughen the hell up and stop looking so scared.  Perhaps she will get to be the protective one, as Deep Breath indicates, as the Doctor gets to demonstrate more of his analytical Malcolm Tucker side.

This is where the emotional negotiations will take place and drive the tension between them or resolve who they are to each other. And part of this maybe bound up in why <insert whatever> wants them together. Thus, identity, emotions, trust, and what these two are to each other and say to each other maybe more important to the overall arc of this season than previous Doctor/companion situations.

So, for all of his more thorny attributes, this Doctor may get more time than ever to talk about who he is and what he feels. That would be a cool contrast to previous incarnations and a better focus than just oooo Old Doctor.

In the end it kinda comes back to the choice to hire Peter Capaldi. Since he has played characters in both Who and Torchwood, I wonder if the series has made a rod for its back regarding finding an explanation for his regeneration. Or whether it provides an opportunity to explore aspects of The Doctor’s physiology and personality that are rarely discussed. Hiring Capaldi means viewers must suspend disbelief to forget we’ve seen him before. Alternatively, our awareness must be heightened so hiring this particular (very fine actor) must be made meaningful. I can only hope the meaning drawn from his regeneration is worth the weight/wait of (possibly) an entire series.

But it’s not like aspects of regeneration haven’t been talked about before. It was a seemingly throwaway line but Melody Pond ‘concentrating on a dress size’ as she becomes River Song indicates the possible influence of conscious thought on regeneration, and I suppose we can also add subconscious influences too. Earlier, when we met the Tardis, The Doctor spoke of fellow Time Lords – and mentioned their choice of gender when regenerating. So all of this feeds into whether This Doctor had a choice to become what we see before us, or whether it was driven by an undercurrent of something and what this means.

So we wonder, what was the writing foreshadowing? There is the Papal Mainframe, The Wire, The Library where River Song is stored, and the episode where people are rewritten like software while others were uploaded to the net. Now, we have the promise of a new exploration of the nexus between technology, religion and identity  – this time with the purported paradise of the robots. And again we have The Doctor being so sure of something, only to have the final scene look like he is absolutely wrong.

To sum up. I suspect identity, trust and how relationships of all kinds can shape and inform who individuals become, will remain themes for a while yet. Most especially since the next episode is Into the Dalek and there is no better SF metaphor for the notion of a public mask (of cold efficiency) versus deep inner turmoil and self loathing than a Dalek.

Of course I could be wrong about everything.

I mean it’s only a kids family TV show, right?

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Doctor Who: Deep Breath of Comedy, Confusion and Action

The first episode after a regeneration sets the tone, but is also a one-off. The Doctor gets the opportunity to be vulnerable in ways he is mostly not the rest of the time.  Much of the rest of the cast can be left to drive the narrative given his erratic behaviour, mental confusion and often unconsciousness. This was especially apparent in David Tennant’s regeneration  episode. The difference between The Christmas Invasion and Deep Breath was that The Doctor was left with Rose, Jackie Tyler and Mickey to sort stuff out – and that was ok, because we knew them.

In the absence of a full history for Clara and her air of ‘unknowability’, The Doctor and Clara end up with the utterly delightful Paternoster Gang. Strax, as usual, provides the laughs in place of Mickey and Jackie.  Strax and Clara are comedy gold, and everything they say to each other is also revealing of the themes of the episode and the conflict Clara feels. In addition, not only do Vastra and Jenny offer the caring role and secure home in place of Jackie and her flat, but provide the passion and the action. Their fight scene was pretty cool.

 

Madame Vastra being artistic.

Madame Vastra being artistic.

What was interesting for Clara’s character was that she was given the range to be several levels of emotional, clever and defensive. It’s all very well to meet the Doctor’s former selves and help them, but it’s a different experience to witness a regeneration – to see one person die and that person replaced by someone else. There is a cognitive dissonance: the same person is a different man, the different man is the same as he always was. It is upsetting. It was upsetting for Rose. It is upsetting for Clara. And now he is Scottish and they ended up in Glasgow and it is upsetting for The Doctor. All this gave Peter Capaldi the opportunity to play off Jenna Coleman’s turmoil and to let The Doctor need a companion’s approval in a new way.

I particularly liked the moments when Clara’s previous experience as a teacher informed her behaviour with the robot command node. We need more of that kind of writing in order to better appreciate her motivations and where she has come from. Clara, unlike any of the other companions in New Who, is a tabula rasa, magnified all the more because her multiple selves in The Doctor’s timeline. She is indeed Impossible, but hitherto, a bit of an Every Girl, barring The Dalek Asylum and The Snowmen, who were versions of Clara. Now Clara is becoming somebody and she must redefine her role in The Doctor’s life.

The episode nicely references the past (Madam Pompadour and Amy among other shoutouts) and sets up future investigations regarding Clara. As much as Clara has always been in The Doctor’s world, the mystery of how it happened remains to be investigated and there is a new thing: this supposed robot paradise that looks like Appalappachia from The Girl Who Waited.

If the episode seemed a little uneven, I think, in part, it is because of the nature of an episode like this. It was a Sherlockian/HP Lovecraft murder investigation, with battles against robots set amongst a meditation on the meaning and importance of identity and trust and friendship run through at a hectic rate.

Vastra, Jenny, the dinosaur, the command node and The Doctor and Clara’s response to them, each provide opportunities for Steven Moffat to explore: What makes us who we are? How is identity built and if it is always in progress how far can we change and still be who we think we are? Who can we rely on when we are lost and alone? Are our closest friends, the people we love, mirrors of ourselves – with similar traits and personalities – or do we think we see in them only what we hide from ourselves? Why continue, what is our purpose? How often do we pretend to be what we want others to see? What lines can we cross and remain who we are?

So I liked the episode, and even if some don’t, the questions it posed, or reposed, about who we think we are and what we do about it, are challenging ones for writers.

 

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